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Ontario Northland: Supporting the Economy through Innovation and Safety

There’s been a lot of attention in recent years on Northern Ontario’s economic potential. Dubbed the ‘Ring of Fire Region’ by some, Northern Ontario is rich in critical minerals that are needed around the world. Economic development efforts will depend on improved rail service. RAC member Ontario Northland will play a big role in supporting the area’s development, as it has for more than a century. A recent conversation with Ontario Northland spokesperson Kate Bondett revealed the role innovation and safety are playing in getting Ontario Northland ready for its starring role in the region’s coming economic boom.

  1. Ontario Northland is marking its 120th year of operations this year. How does it continue to innovate? And how important is continually innovating to Ontario Northland as it serves northern Ontarians?

At Ontario Northland, one important aspect of our approach to innovation is that we spend a great deal of time fostering relationships and taking the time to learn the needs of our clients. Our motor coach service is a good example of that – we have expanded our services over the past decade to cater to the communities we serve. For example, over the past two years specifically, many enhancements have been made to existing routes to include hospital and post-secondary education stops and direct connections allowing passengers to travel further with other transportation providers like VIA Rail in Ottawa. We listen carefully to our customers and value their ideas and feedback.

Our 120-year history contributes to our ability to foster relationships, particularly as it pertains to our Remanufacturing and Repair Centre. As a manufacturer, we provide the unique perspective of also running a railway. Our ability to be truly client-focused is embedded in our fabric, allowing us to deliver on products in ways that we know are important to our customers. We deliver the highest quality of work, on-time and on-budget. To garner that reputation, we’ve had to continue to be innovative and creative.

  1. Tell us about a recent example of creativity/ingenuity involving a missing side sill cutting tool.

We take a great deal of pride in the relationships built amongst our staff. Our Remanufacturing and Repair Centre are a diverse, highly skilled team, complete with production workers, railway car mechanics, machinists, electricians, welders, production and project managers, engineering specialists, painters and many more.

Recently, while completing a project for a client, the team realized they were missing a crucial tool to complete a process called side sill cutting. Side sill cutting involves removing the lower exterior panels of a coach, to provide proper access to clean and repair any corrosion build-up on the structural frame. Working together as a team, employees were able to develop an alternative approach to complete the task which involved sourcing materials, developing a safe process to install a new angle-guide, coordinating appropriate measurements as well as sanding and grinding the side sill area to remove any debris. Each employee contributed a different skill to the completion of the task, which enabled them to complete the project in a timely fashion, rather than being delayed by several weeks, awaiting a specific tool.

  1. That example really drives home the point that rail innovation and safety are often closely linked…

At Ontario Northland, safety and innovation go hand in hand. In the instance where we had to create an interim new process for side sill cutting, our team worked closely with supervisors and the onsite QA representative before proceeding with the project. The team was able to work together to develop a new process that was not only timely but kept everyone safe.

As my colleague Joshua Dale (Production Manager, Carshop Operations) said to me recently: “Not only were all employees able to meet their schedule, but this accomplishment seemed to boost morale. The team took pride in overcoming this roadblock while maintaining the safety of everyone involved. I really want to commend our staff for coming together like this, with all team members contributing to such a positive outcome.”

  1. How do relationships with Indigenous communities play into Ontario Northland’s innovation culture?

Relationships are at the heart of our business, including our relationships with indigenous communities. Because of the feedback we’ve received, we have been able to create solutions that ensure our communities are represented and benefit from the decisions we make as an organization.

The Polar Bear Express passenger is an essential service providing the only all-season land link to the James Bay Coast. This service helps connect passengers to healthcare facilities, educational facilities, sport and leisure activities and more.

Our Polar Bear Express monthly conference calls are a good example of how we continue to ensure we are providing services that are needed.  During the pandemic, we were able to align priorities and share protocols to enhance public health and safety. These calls gave us an opportunity to truly understand the perspectives of those living and working in remote communities and the extra care and precautions needed during the pandemic. Furthermore, because of these consistent touch points with the communities that we serve, we’ve heard from passengers that they have an 84% satisfaction rate with our Polar Bear Express Service. We are proud of that statistic, and we could not accomplish it without dialogue.

  1. Northern Ontario has lots of what the world needs and wants – critical minerals and more. How will innovation at Ontario Northland play a role in getting those items to people and markets around the world?

Rail is the backbone of the transportation system in Northern Ontario. Ontario Northland provides rail freight services to northern regions’ mining, forestry, and agriculture businesses. Rail provides a safe, reliable and environmentally conscious way to ship goods, particularly during the winter months. Transloading has seen growth in Northern Ontario for this reason. Industries ship their goods via freight because trains can carry large volumes of essential goods across vast distances, connecting businesses to world-class supply chains. The company’s rail line interchanges with CN and CP allowing freight customers to easily ship to destinations throughout North America. We continue to work with communities to modernize our operations to open more market options to northern communities and businesses.